Oral history interview with Kazuo Inamori

  • 2010-Apr-19
  • 2010-Nov-13
Photograph of Kazuo Inamori

Kazuo Inamori was born in 1932 in Kagoshima, Japan, which lies on the southern tip of Kyushu Island—the southernmost of Japan's four largest islands. He was one of seven children. During elementary school, he was a very spirited child who loved science and also showed an interest in the machines that were in his father's printing shop. When he was in the 6th grade, he contracted tuberculosis. During his illness he read a book by a Buddhist monk, and this sparked his interest in religion. During World War II, his family's home was destroyed by an air raid and the family afterward had to live very modestly. Though he had a scholarship, in order to afford high school and supplement his family's income, Inamori made and sold paper bags. Inamori had high grades in high school in both physics and mathematics. His mathematics teacher, who had previously been the principal of his junior high, was much impressed. This teacher not only persuaded Inamori to continue on with his studies beyond high school, but he also visited Inamori's parents and convinced them to allow Inamori to go to a university. Inamori enrolled at Kagoshima University, where he majored in organic chemistry. Graduating from Kagoshima University, Inamori's first job was in research and development at Shofu Industries in Kyoto, Japan, where he quickly demonstrated enormous skill. He developed fosterite, the first person in Japan to do so, to serve as an insulator for high frequency radio waves. He then designed the mass production of high frequency insulator components made of fosterite. This led him to invent the electric tunnel kiln, used in sintering, which was then widely adopted in the industry. Despite these successes at Shofu, after a strong difference of opinion with his superior, he decided to leave the company. Learning this, several of his co-workers joined him. In 1959, together with seven other colleagues, Inamori established Kyoto Ceramic, which later became known as Kyocera. Inamori quickly secured for his company a contract from Matsushita Electronics Industries (now Panasonic), which called for Kyoto Ceramic to manufacture U-shaped Kelcimas (high-frequency insulator components for TV picture tubes). However, worried that his company was too dependent on Matsushita, Inamori sought orders from established Japanese manufacturers. Unfortunately, at that time his efforts did not meet with success, largely due to the Keiretsu (company affiliation) business network system. This led him to seek opportunities in the open markets of the United States. His first US customer was Fairchild Semiconductor, which placed orders for silicon transistor headers. Then IBM placed large-volume orders for ceramic substrates. Inamori continued to develop and refine Cerdip packages and multilayer packages for the US market. Kyocera's fine ceramics business continued to grow and contributed greatly to the development of the US semiconductor industry. To avoid dependence on the semiconductor market, Inamori diversified Kyocera. Initially he turned Kyocera to the manufacture of photovoltaic cells, cutting tools, and bioceramics—all employing fine ceramics technologies. Later, however, through various mergers and acquisitions, he moved Kyocera into other areas—especially the manufacture of electronic information equipment, e. g. laptops, peripheral equipment, and telecommunications equipment. When Japan's telecommunications industry was deregulated in 1984, Inamori decided to establish DDI Corporation (Daini Denden) to compete against NTT (Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corporation), which up to then had monopolized the Japanese telecommunications market. Not having any infrastructure in place, DDI was forced to rely on microwave communications to establish long distance telecommunication networks. Several years later, the Japanese government opened mobile communications to competition, and Inamori decided that DDI should enter into the cell phone business. This further contributed to DDI's growth and evolution. In 2000 DDI merged with KDD (Kokusai Denshin Denwa) and IDO (Nippn Idou Tsushin Corporation, which had been started by Toyota), to form KDDI, which today is the second largest comprehensive telecommunications company in Japan. In 1984 Inamori also established the Inamori Foundation based on his rationale that we have no higher calling than to serve the greater good of humankind and society. One of the main functions of the foundation is awarding the annual Kyoto Prize, which honors those who have made extraordinary contributions to science, civilization, and the spirituality of humankind. Inamori has also established the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, Ohio), which awards the Inamori Ethics Prize to those who practice model ethical leadership and have contributed significantly to the betterment of global society and mankind. In 2010, the Japanese government asked Inamori to take the helm of JAL (Japan Airlines) and reconstruct this bankrupt firm. Responding to this special request, Inamori became chairman of JAL. In this capacity, he has focused considerable effort on educating JAL employees, changing their attitudes toward work and customers, as well as on instilling the ailing airline with his innovative management philosophy. By his actions he has been able to strengthen customer service and has quickly turned around and improved JAL's business performance. Inamori attributes his overall success to his philosophy of love and caring. His motto is “Respect the Divine and Love People.” In the end, he gives this advice to global leaders who face many challenges: “Disregard personal egos and act for the greater good and happiness of humanity based on your conscience.”

Access this interview

Available upon request are 1 PDF transcript and 6 audio recording files.

After submitting a brief form, you will receive immediate access to these files. If you have any questions about transcripts, recordings, or usage permissions, contact the Center for Oral History at oralhistory@sciencehistory.org.

PDF — 1.1 MB